restricted access 4. Highlander Folk School
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Chapter Four Highlander Folk School I can remember one time when [ Jane Addams and I] talked about this business of democracy and I asked her, “Well, what do you think democracy means?” She said, “It means people have the right to make decisions . If there is a group of people sitting around a country store and there’s a problem they’re talking about, there are two ways to do it. They can go out and get some official to tell them what to do, or they can talk it out and discuss it themselves. Democracy is if they did it themselves.” I asked her where she got that idea, and she said she heard it from her father, who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. I told her I didn’t think that was bad advice at all. —Myles Horton, The Long Haul Prior to founding the Highlander Folk School in 1932 in the poor, rural area near the small Cumberland Plateau town of Monteagle, Tennessee, Myles Horton, like Jane Addams in the late nineteenth century, spent time researching and visiting examples of innovative approaches to education . Horton was looking for a way to put his hopes for social justice through democratic education into practice. These early inquiries brought him to Chicago to learn from, among other people, Jane Addams and her then forty-year experiment with community-based civic learning at Hull House. These visits gave Horton firsthand lessons from Addams on the early days at Hull House and her experiences with keeping its vision intact through difficult times. Most important, Horton came away inspired by the key similarity between Addams and himself: an abiding faith in democracy, along with an understanding of democracy as something you do. During its first thirty years, Highlander was the education center for several social movements. It was a community folk school that was a training 67 center for southern unions in the 1930s and 1940s, and a gathering place and partner for black and white civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Jane Addams and Hull House had an important influence on its approach to connect education with civic life. Myles Horton and Jane Addams Late in his life, Myles Horton recounted his meetings with Jane Addams and other residents of Hull House. These accounts could possibly be seen as exaggerations by a charismatic and savvy storyteller trying to connect his efforts with the more well-known work done at Hull House for dramatic effect. However, a private letter from Horton to Dr. Alice Hamilton seems to confirm otherwise—namely, that the impact of Hull House on Highlander was, in fact, genuine. Alice Hamilton, a close colleague of Jane Addams who helped found the League of Nations, was honored for her research on workers’ health in mines and factories; she also lived at Hull House for many years. After a New York Times article in February 1969 reported on the 100th birthday celebration of this remarkable woman, Horton wrote a note of congratulations. Horton begins, “Your fruitful and exciting life has been so packed with exciting people and causes that I do not expect you to remember me or the Highlander Folk School which you and Jane Addams contributed to in its prenatal stage.” Horton then recalls Addams’s reaction to his early ideas: When I was at the University of Chicago in 1930–31, I had the rare privilege of discussing my embryonic ideas a number of times with you and Jane Addams at the dinner table. Later she was to describe Highlander as a “rural settlement house reminiscent of the pioneer days of Hull House.”1 Horton proceeds to describe to Hamilton the changes occurring at Highlander, explaining that Highlander was bringing on new, younger staff as they directed their efforts away from the civil rights movement and toward the rural poverty in the area surrounding Highlander in Appalachia . With these changes, Horton writes, the staff would take on more of the administrative duties, allowing him to focus on what he loved best: Highlander’s educational mission. Horton then connects the work at Hull House and Highlander to future efforts in which community learning would be central to addressing social and economic problems . Horton writes: “Hopefully, I can help provide a bridge between the ideas we discussed at Hull House and the educational approaches that will have to be developed if today’s social and economic problems are to be dealt with constructively.”2 68 Why Community Matters...


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